Malamud’s Leo Finkle is a character trying to figure out who he really is. Having spent the last six years of his life deep in study for ordination as a rabbi, he is an isolated and passionless man, disconnected from human emotion. When Lily Hirschorn asks him how he came to discover his calling as a rabbi, Leo responds with embarrassment: ”I am not a talented religious person…. I think … that I came to God, not because I loved him, but because I did not.” In other words, Leo hopes that by becoming a rabbi he might learn to love himself and the people around him. Leo is in despair after his conversation with Lily because “.. .he saw himself for the first time as he truly was—unloved and loveless.”
As he realizes the truth about himself, he becomes desperate to change. Leo determines to reform himself and renew his life. Leo continues to search for a bride, but without the matchmaker’s help: “… he regained his composure and some idea of purpose in life: to go on as planned. Although he was imperfect, the ideal was not.” The ideal, in this case, is love. Leo comes to believe that through love—the love he feels when he first sees the photograph of Stella Salzman—he may begin his life anew, and forge an identity based on something more positive. When at last he meets Stella he “pictured, in her, his own redemption.” That redemption, the story’s ending leads us to hope, will be Leo’s discovery through Stella of an identity based on love.
God and Religion
Central to Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” is the idea that to love God, one must love man first. Finkle is uncomfortable with Lily’s questions because they make him realize ”the true nature of his relationship to God.” He comes to realize “that he did not love God as well as he might, because he had not loved man.” In spite of the zeal with which he has pursued his rabbinical studies, Leo’s approach to God, as the narrative reveals, is one of cold, analytical formalism. Unable fully to love God’s creatures, Leo Finkle cannot fully love God.
Once again, the agent of change in Leo’s life seems to be Stella Salzman. The text strongly implies that by loving Stella, by believing in her, Leo will be able to come to God. Just before his meeting with Stella, Leo “concluded to convert her to goodness, him to God.” To love Stella, it seems, will be Leo’s true ordination, his true rite of passage to the love of God.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Bernard Malamud, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.